Profile Series: Francesco Avanzi

Let’s get the basics. Name, where you are from, and your current affiliation, advisor and profile?

My name is Francesco Avanzi and I am from Milan, Italy. I earned my PhD in snow hydrology and physics as the Politecnico di Milano, with visiting periods in Switzerland and Japan. After a postdoc at UC Berkeley (CA), I am now back to my home country and work at CIMA Research Foundation, an applied-research center focusing on civil protection, disaster mitigation, and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems conservation.

What is the research you are currently working on (projects/funding/teaching)?

I contribute to CIMA’s mountain-hydrology research, meaning that most – if not all – CIMA projects related to snow, glaciers, and mountains in general are on my agenda. My duties include developing and deploying operational flood- and water-resources forecasting chains, implementing snow and glacier models, validating snow-satellite data products, and formulating new data-assimilation techniques. I also serve with my colleagues as an operational flood forecaster in support of the European Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) and advise undergrad and grad students.

Share your motivation, experience and challenges of your transition from an academic setting to pure research setting environment. 

My main motivation has been to realize that there was no “transition” to make. Particularly during my postdoc at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a large hydropower company and live the implications of droughts and megafires first-hand. These experiences made me realize that the academic and the so-called applied-research worlds must come together and work with decision makers to solve real-world problems.

In doing so, a difficulty I did face was to train myself to pursue research that is not only interesting or “publishable”, but more importantly relevant – research that has the potential to leave the world a little better than we found it. Not saying I have already succeeded, but I do feel an urgency to do my part in achieving a more sustainable and just world.

What do you wish you had known when you started your graduate/academic career?

First, that this is tough – and failing is part of the game. It took about 2.5 yrs of unemployment for me to first find a PhD and then a postdoc. After the postdoc, my original plan was to access a faculty position somewhere in Europe, and dozens of applications and a handful of interviews did not make it. Clearly this is my experience, and others may tell a different story. But still, it is important to know that it takes time, patience, and perseverance.

Second, that “doing research” does not necessarily mean “staying in academia”: the job market is widening and more exciting posts in applied science are being created every day –  so keep the door open.

Third, that cultivating a proper work-life balance matters. While research is fascinating and certainly motivates us to “do more”, we are quite a lot beyond that. And successes and failures in research are no benchmark of our successes and failures as persons.

Aside from a lab bench, where has your research taken you?

What I believe really matters is not “where” but “with whom”. Research, like life, is all about relationships. Thus I am lucky I have always found positive people to work with; these persons have not only made my journey so interesting to me, but importantly have provided me with the necessary seat belts to go through the bumps of such a complex career path.

Having said that, of all the landscapes and places I have seen, the California Sierra Nevada remains the one I am most attached to. Part of my postdoc involved  doing field work in such remote places that the only feasible solution for us was to turn off mobile phones for a week, pack enough food to be completely independent, and take care of ourselves in the mountains with just a sleeping bag, a tent, and what nature could give us – possibly avoiding bears in the meantime. The endless forests and silence, the sense of freedom and the stars, these are all things I will always bring with me.  

What your If you were not a young hydrologist, what would you be doing?

As a kid, I was really into two things: animals and history. So I guess I would be either a natural scientist or a historian. I like to think that those passions still survive in my everyday life.

What got you started on this current research? Was there some epiphany or light bulb moment?

I could pretend I can pinpoint one such moments, but reality is that each and everyone of us is  a complex mosaic of experiences and encounters. So – to me – these epiphanies rarely exist. What really got me started on my current research was the advise of people I trust – my M.Sc. and then PhD advisor, my PhD co-advisors, my postdoc PIs, and now my supervisors. So as you see we always loop back to relationships here. I do remember, though, that what motivated me to study natural risks prevention in the early days where two natural disasters: the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 and the 2011 flood in Genoa. That’s when the real word knocked on my door and made me realize I wanted to do my part to prevent those disasters from happening again.

Who is your role model in science and why? What makes you admire them?

Brian May, hands down. He studied astrophysics at the Imperial College and was about to finalize his PhD thesis in 1974 when, well, he happened to be the front guitarist of what was soon to become one of the most successful rock bands in history (Queen). So he understandably went out to run errands for a few decades. This didn’t stop him from coming back to science and finally defending his dissertation in 2007. He has been active in the field since then. His tenacity, eclectic passion for science, and capability  of being successful in quite a lot of things beyond academia is what really makes me admire him.

Check out CIMA‘s website and Francesco’s publications on Google Scholar.

Follow Francesco on Twitter – @WorldOfChecco.

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